Monday, August 3, 2009

Special in Name Only

The past couple of years, this council has reduced the number of regular meetings during the summer - instead of council meetings every two weeks, only one in July and one in August. This isn't difficult to understand - things do slow down in the summer, it makes it easier for members of council to take time off without missing meetings, and because staff tend to take holidays then, it puts fewer demands on the staff who have to cover for them.

So it may surprise you to know that in July, we had one regular council meeting, one regular executive meeting, but two special meetings. Not only did we have two special meetings, but we had them in the same week, one last Monday, the next on Friday. And rather than have meetings at the usual time, both were held over the noon hour, with lunch provided at the Monday meeting, not just for members of council, but also for city staff.

The Cities Act does provide for special meetings, as long as twenty-four hours' notice is given. In the case of Friday's meeting, we didn't even have that, so the city clerk had to call each member of council to ask that we waive that requirement. But the provision is clearly meant for emergencies, for matters that cannot wait for a week or so, not for meetings to be called due to impatience.

Special meetings do not provide the public with much notice to attend, and the materials for the meetings are not available to those who may be interested. This contradicts our oft-claimed principle of being open and accountable. They also cost the city - in staff time, to set up for the meetings, notify council members, and attend. And at Monday's meeting, taxpayers paid for lunch, which is an extra cost that, considering the state of our budget, we shouldn't even be contemplating.

What were the crises that needed to be dealt with so quickly?

Monday's meeting was about adding a vice-chair to the Heritage Committee, reviewing a tender,and discussing some long-term financial matters in-camera.

At the Friday meeting, we were asked to vote to approve expenditures for the water treatment plant, and to approve the issuance of a Request for Proposal to study the current transit system. We received the report outlining the RFP the evening before, so weren't even given enough time to review this lengthy report before we were expected to approve it. I had several questions, but got the predictable response from other members of council - either the matters that I raised would be part of something else (not sure what), or I could have attended the Transportation Committee two days earlier (which didn't have quorum, so couldn't make any recommendations on the proposal), or that other councillors planned to make suggestions for changes later, after they had time to read the report, even though it was going to be approved by council, and thus shouldn't be able to be changed. I'm not even sure if anyone who actually uses the transit system on a regular basis was consulted in the preparation of the report.

Were any of these items so time-sensitive that they couldn't be deferred to the next meeting of council? Or were they matters that, with a bit better organization, could have been brought to the regular July meeting, but the necessary reports just weren't ready in time? I think that both council and administration need to work better together to ensure that all materials required for meetings, particularly those which are going to require a decision, be provided to members of council and the public well in advance of any meetings. And we should be trying to minimize the number of times that we ask both council and administrative staff to meet to discuss only a couple of relatively minor matters, especially if it will take staff away from their actual jobs.

I didn't see any need for either special meeting. It seems to be more a matter of impatience, of wanting to finish things off without taking the time needed for full and open discussion. If we would just slow down and plan, we'd get where we want to go a lot more quickly. When we call special meetings without a true urgent need, but to rush through matters without full consideration, and without giving the public the opportunity to comment, we don't give the impression of operating efficiently or of moving systematically towards our goals, whatever they may be. Instead, we run the risk of appearing to be like the hero in the Stephen Leacock story, who "flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions". We may be moving fast, but we don't appear to be making any progress.

"More haste, less speed." - Anonymous

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